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The Other Top 25 Preseason Rankings: No. 6 Richmond Spiders

With the A-10 wide open and incredibly competitive, the Spiders look to rise to the top

NCAA Basketball: Dayton at Richmond Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

2019-20 Record: 24-7, 14-4 A-10

Key Returners: Grant Golden, Jacob Gilyard, Blake Francis, Nathan Cayo

Key Losses: The Spiders return their top seven players in minutes-per-game average from last year. That’s continuity. However, Nick Sherod (12.7 ppg, 44% from three) tore his ACL, MCL, and meniscus on Oct. 15 in practice and will miss the season. Damn.

Key Newcomers: Connor Crabtree (RS-So., Tulane), Isaiah Wilson (Fr.)

Continuity, continuity, continuity. The Spiders finished second to Dayton in the Atlantic 10 last season and return every contributor from that team except for the injured Sherod. Defensive Player of the Year Jacob Gilyard (3.2 steals per game, good for a Richmond single-season record of 99 on the year) anchors a great three-guard backcourt, and Grant Golden brings back an elite presence in the paint. Last year, Richmond was well positioned to potentially steal a bid to the NCAA Tournament. This year, in an A-10 without Obi Toppin but with five teams that look like tournament contenders, Richmond has the chance to dance for the first time since 2011.

Key Non-Conference Games

Richmond has a doozy of a non-conference schedule. Considering the COVID-19 pandemic, any team with a slate of more than one or two non-conference games will have a heck of a time finishing them all. Furthermore, some teams are opting to play mostly in-region and against weaker opponents.

That’s what makes Richmond’s non-conference slate so intriguing. Richmond travels to both Kentucky (ranked 11th in KenPom’s preseason rankings) on Nov. 29 and West Virginia (ranked 8th) on Dec. 13.

Much like any year under John Calipari, Kentucky is loaded with talented youth. So early in such a strange season, it will be interesting to see if the experienced lineup of seniors at Richmond’s disposal can come into Rupp Arena and leave with a big-time win.

West Virginia is a different story. They’re loaded with experience, including Noted Dudes(TM) Derek Culver and Oscar Tshiebwe. The Mountaineer defense is going to be a monster and watching Richmond’s vaunted offense compete with Press Virginia is going to be must-see TV. Nabbing either of these victories would go a long way to sealing up a potential at large bid.

3 Things to Watch

The backcourt

Gilyard’s single-season steals record was good enough for the fourth-best steal rate in the nation, per KenPom. His other accolades: A-10 Defensive Player of the Year, a top 10 finalist for National Defensive Player of the Year, First Team All Atlantic 10, and now a Bob Cousy Award Preseason Nominee, given to the nation’s top point guard. That’s all while standing at only 5’9. (Author’s note: as an alum of a school where the lead guard who just graduated was a scoring machine at 5’11, I am stupidly jealous).

And he’s just scratching the surface. Each of the starting guards (Gilyard, Blake Francis, and Sherod) attempted over 150 threes last year and shot at over a 36% clip. Without Sherod (BOOOO ACL TEARS, BOOOO), it will be interesting to see who compliments leading scorer Francis and defensive lynchpin/floor general Gilyard, because Sherod is A LOT to replace. The best guess from the returning roster is Andre Gustavson, but don’t count out Tulane transfer Connor Crabtree, who sat out last year. This could also be where one of the three freshman guards (Quentin Southall, Isaiah Wilson, and Dji Bailey) can make a mark in year one. Wilson is the highest-rated and might be the best shooter.

The Golden-Cayo Combo

Golden was second on the team in scoring last year and was a top-five player in the A-10, per KenPom, posting top 500 numbers in %Possessions, %Shots, effective field goal %, true shooting %, defensive rebounding rate, assist rate, block %, fouls called on per 40, and 2 point field goal %. That’s one hell of a resume.

Between Golden and Francis, Richmond has two elite offensive focal points — one on the interior and one on the perimeter. But Golden isn’t the only threat on the interior. Richmond also has Nathan Cayo, who’s an accomplished offensive player in his own right. Efficient to the extreme, Cayo played foil to Golden last year, and the two compliment each other well. Neither is a true modern stretch-4 (in fact, Cayo didn’t attempt one three last year and Golden only 19), and Richmond plays a bit more of a traditional three-out, two-in system. However, Cayo is uber athletic and has an incredible arsenal of post-up moves and face-up moves to score from the interior, and draws a startling number of fouls. Plus, he gets to benefit from being the recipient and finisher of a lot of Golden interior passes. The tandem is going to be fun to watch and make for a fun two-man game.

Balance and improvement

Richmond ended last year as the No. 53 offense and the No. 54 defense per KenPom. Few teams manage to have such balance on both ends of the floor. Besides the injured Sherod, all of that is coming back. A special senior year awaits for many of these players, and Richmond is spoiled with how balanced the scoring load is carried between the players.

However, there are a few things that could make this team even better than last year, besides simply improving on where they were and maintaining this balance.

The two big, glaring problems? Offensive rebounding and drawings fouls. Richmond was absolutely miserable at both. Like, grimace and cover the childrens’ eyes miserable. If Golden and Cayo can be more effective on the offensive glass, Richmond’s incredible offense can see more shot attempts, and therefore see more points. In the same vein, if everyone on the roster can take a note from Cayo about drawing fouls and getting to the line, Richmond has the ability to rack up the scoring numbers and let their strong defense have a breather when it needs it. You fix either of those problems, and this team looks ready to be in the thick of the fight with Saint Louis, Dayton, Duquesne, and St. Bonaventure at the top of the A-10. If these problems can’t be addressed, Richmond may find itself on the losing side of close decisions in that pack.

X-Factor

The third guard spot

You really can’t begin to spell out how brutal it is that Sherod doesn’t get to play with this team this year. Not only does he have to miss yet another year with yet another ACL tear (yes, multiple now in his career), but he gets to watch his fellow seniors play through a special season without him. That’s terrible, and I feel for him.

As I mentioned above, he’s not really replaceable, especially because there isn’t a proven commodity on the roster behind him. If Richmond can put a player in his spot and have that player thrive, even if it’s only up to 75% of Sherod’s ability, the blow will be blunted, and Richmond can still have a magical season. If the Spiders can’t find that replacement, they may be left wondering what could have been.